Dishabituation and sensitization emerge as separate processes during development in Aplysia

C. H. Rankin, T. J. Carew

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Until recently, dishabituation and sensitization have commonly been considered to reflect a unitary process: Sensitization refers to a general facilitation produced by strong or noxious stimuli that enhances subsequent responding; dishabituation has been thought to represent a special instance of sensitization in which the facilitation is simply superimposed on a habituated response level. The unitary process hypothesis was based on the observation that both decremented and nondecremented responses are facilitated by a common noxious or strong stimulus. However, this observation does not rule out the possibility that dishabituation and sensitization could reflect separate processes that are activated in parallel by a strong stimulus. Recent cellular experiments by Hochner et al. (1986) suggest that this, in fact, occurs in the sensory neurons of the gill withdrawal reflex in Aplysia. A developmental analysis of learning in the marine mollusc Aplysia permits a direct behavioral test of this hypothesis. If dishabituation and sensitization reflect a unitary process then they should emerge at the same time ontogenetically. On the other hand, if they reflect different processes, then they might emerge according to different ontogenetic timetables. In the present study we examined the temporal emergence of dishabituation and sensitization in the defensive siphon withdrawal reflex in 3 stages of juvenile Aplysia: stage 11, early stage 12, and late stage 12. Animals received one of 2 kinds of training: Dishabituation training, in which the effect of strong tail shock on habituated responses was observed, and Sensitization training, in which the effect of strong tail shock on nondecremented responses was observed. We found that, while dishabituation was present in all stages examined, sensitization did not emerge until several weeks later, in late stage 12. These results were confirmed and extended in a group of animals that were tested twice: first in stage 11, when they showed no sensitization, and again 13 weeks later, in late stage 12, when they then showed significant sensitization. Our analysis of nondecremented responses prior to the emergence of sensitization also revealed an unexpected inhibitory component of tail shock that produces reflex depression. Moreover, there was a clear progression in the net effects of tail shock during development: reflex depression was produced in stages 11 and early stage 12, followed by a transition to reflex facilitation (sensitization) in late stage 12. Finally, when sensitization emerged in late stage 12, the process of dishabituation showed a significant increase compared with previous developmental stages. Our results permit 2 principal conclusions. First, in contrast to a unitary process view, dishabituation and sensitization emerge as separate behavioral processes according to very different developmental timetables in Aplysia. Second, the magnitude of dishabituation appears to be determined by the interaction of 3 underlying processes: (1) the dishabituation process itself; (2) an inhibitory process that competes with dishabituation (see also Rankin and Carew, 1987b); and (3) a facilitatory process (sensitization) that augments dishabituation (see also Hochner et al., 1986).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)197-211
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1988

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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